When I was a child, my family used to holiday in Weston Super Mare, on the Somerset coast – year after year. Occasionally, we would make the run out to Longleat Zoo to marvel at the animals and the big house. But one year, probably about 1985, I noticed that a Doctor Who exhibition was on at Longleat.
I made my way to the exhibition and gazed in wonder as the entrance to the exhibition was the actual Tardis Blue box. It was as if you were actually stepping into the Tardis itself and walking around the exhibit but all contained within the Tardis box. Ok, so the Tardis had a huge room attached to the back, but I was 6 years old – so I bought into it!
The visitor walked through room-after-room, as if you were in a Tardis zoo; which housed dangerous monsters in enclosure-after-enclosure, behind plexi glass screens.
Each room was accompanied by animatronic movements, sounds and ominous music which made the experience a bit scary for young kids. I vaguely remember a warning present on the door (that young kids should be accompanied by adults).
My personal highlights were seeing the Cybermen, who I always liked the most and Davros who was just as ugly in the flesh – as he was on TV. Seeing the actual Doctor costumes on display, used to create a pang of excitement, as if they were all really there.
The attraction moved to a central room which had a working Tardis console going up and down. There was a big screen, which showed clips from the programme. When I was there, they were always showing the Doctors regenerations – back to back.
Sometimes, there would even be a tour guide who took groups of people through the exhibition; explaining who the monsters were and which episode they appeared in.
Longleat staff would even wander around Longleat grounds, dressed as Cybermen, Daleks and Doctors of their era – always appeared at the exhibition; to publicize a new monster or event.
The Longleat exhibition ran for 30 years – from 1973, regularly redressing it’s attractions as new series came and went. A devastating fire nearly destroyed the entire exhibit in 1996 but a refit later, it was back open.
It finally closed its doors, forever in 2003. Which was probably due to a tail-off of popularity at that time, as Doctor Who had been off-the-air, for over 10 years – at that point.
Ironic that only 2 years later, it would be back on the BBC and as popular as ever. Now the Doctor Who Experience regularly tours the country, so it is unlikely the Longleat one will ever come back, although people continue to campaign.
In 2010, I visited the Doctor Who experience in Newcastle at the Center For Life. It was mostly based around the then 10th Matt Smith series 5 which was on TV, at that time.
Whilst it was all authentic BBC props and had interactive elements, such as being exterminated by Dalek’s or “deleted” by Cybermen – it didn’t quite have the magic, scaryness or uncomfortable closeness of the original Longleat event.
Who Longleat would have been consigned to the mists of subconsciousness had it not been for me coming across an interesting website which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Longleat Doctor Who exhibition (maybe it’s revival too!): www.drwhoexhibitions.co.uk
If you are interested in seeing some of the attractions which populated the exhibition over the years, then this is the place for you. The below youtube video – from 1991 is pretty good too!
Dave Armitage – Classic Doctor Who fan
Re-published (in part) and in kind regard to spacemancentral.com.
Photo’s of the Exhibition can be found here http://www.drwhoexhibitions.co.uk/longleatgallery.htm.
The history of the exhibition can be found here on http://www.drwhoexhibitions.co.uk/longleat.htm